New Zealand Law Society - Is access to justice as available as it should be?

Is access to justice as available as it should be?

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Highly experienced employment lawyer Kathryn Beck is the new face of the New Zealand Law Society, having taken the reins as the President on 15 April.

At 47, she is one of the youngest people to take office and just the third woman to do so since the organisation was established in 1869.

Photo of Kathryn Beck sitting down

Ms Beck has been practising law for over 25 years.

She is engaging and will speak her mind on almost any legal subject, including as to why there is an obvious gap between men and women holding positions of power in the legal fraternity.

But does she think the profession is overrun by male dominated legal conservatism?

"I don't know if we've had a conservative approach in the past. I think there has been a continual process of change as the profession develops in terms of its diversity and its outlook as well.

"Obviously I am different from the majority of Presidents who have gone before me. I'm a woman, I'm younger and that was a choice on the part of the profession when it had a chance to choose who their President would be. I want to bring a fresh approach," she says.

While not sounding alarm bells, it is hard to ignore recent Law Society figures, showing male lawyers are twice as likely to become partners or directors in a law firm during their first 10 to 20 years of practice than female lawyers with the same experience.

Yet over 60% of all new lawyers entering the work force every year are women, suggesting severe underrepresentation of women in senior legal roles is a deep-seated issue.

Woeful figures for women in law

"The figures are woeful. The big issue is not getting women into the profession, its retaining them and getting them into positions of leadership. It has got better, but it hasn't got better quickly enough," Ms Beck says.

"I think there is an inherent sexism still sitting in our profession and we know that there is inherent bias. A lot of it isn't conscious … I'm not suggesting that people are consciously making decisions in a way that will discriminate or disadvantage women, but it is happening because there is just this inherent bias sitting within some of our structures and some of our thinking and that's what we really need to change," she says.

Ms Beck says gender diversity within leadership and working groups has been proven to make better business decisions.

"So it's not just a moral issue or an issue of principle, it's a practical business issue as well, and studies have shown that when you have women on boards it broadens how people problem solve," she says.

Changing mind-sets and offering solutions

Kathryn Beck thinks it's about changing mind-sets and offering solutions.

"It has been tackled consistently for some time but we need to be more effective. That's what I and others are setting out to do. I don't think there is any real conscious resistance to change.

Part of the new President's plan is to work closely with the many women lawyers organisations and branch committees throughout the country, and the Women's Advisory Panel, which was established last year under the watch of previous President, Chris Moore, who is also a strong proponent for a change of thinking.

"Women in law could well be my harshest critics as I set out my plans, and I accept that," she says.

Progress for women in law has been seeping through the regions with the new Gisborne Law Society President, Alison Bendall succeeding Tiana Epati and in Napier the President is Alison Souness. In Southland, Toni Green is now President and Nerissa Barber is the current President of the Wellington branch until elections are held soon.

But it's not just promoting women in law that Ms Beck has her legal sights firmly on.

The justice system

When Kathryn Beck talks law, she oozes an obvious passion for the justice system but she questions whether access to justice in New Zealand is as available as it should be.

"It's a broad and complex issue and not just about representation by a lawyer. It is also about people understanding the justice system – having enough information and education around it so that it isn't such a foreign concept that the only way people can access it [justice] is through a lawyer," she says.

Ms Beck questions whether justice is accessible enough for Māori and Pacific Island communities along with ethnic minorities who could face language and other barriers.

Ms Beck says the other more immediate issues to look at are alternative ways for the public to access legal representation, access to legal aid (particularly in the family law area) and the time it is taking to achieve a result for a litigant.

"We as lawyers are going to need to be a big part of the discussion about the resourcing and design of our system and the support around that system. We work in it every day and we want it to succeed as much if not more than others. We can make a real contribution in this area," she says.

Healthy lawyers = Healthy practices

It has been well publicised that practising law is a very stressful profession and that many lawyers are workaholics, chained to their jobs, and living what could be described as unhealthy lifestyles.

A lack of sleep and exercise, poor nutrition or eating on the run and having an alcoholic drink far too frequently can all contribute to a slow disintegration of mind, causing depression, anxiety and other related problems.

Ms Beck views health and lifestyle as fundamental to a good law practice.

"The health of the practitioner and the health of the practice are intrinsically intertwined. Being a lawyer is a hard job. You're often dealing with people at a time in their life when they are going through one of the most important or stressful things they'll ever go through.

"It could be about their children, a family death, their business, employment or their freedom if it's a criminal case," she says.

Ms Beck says stress felt by lawyers isn't linked to just one type of law being practised and that lawyers are not bullet proof.

"Sometimes it's very negative, people are scrapping with each other and a lot of that stress gets pushed on to the lawyer who is meant to handle it, and we're not trained psychologists, but we have to handle it and it is hard," she says.

The country was in shock over the sudden death of barrister Greg King in 2012 at the age of 43.

He was one of the best-known criminal defence lawyers, and was also an important contributor to public understanding and knowledge of the criminal justice system.

But quietly he struggled with his own demons and his death shook the very foundations of the legal fraternity, serving as a wake-up call.

"He had some mental health issues and equally he was struggling with other health issues, and the nature of his practice. Unfortunately he didn't feel able to talk about it to people. That was a tragedy but sadly not uncommon.

"What we really want is to take the stigma out of struggling and get practitioners to talk about it and use the tools and resources the Law Society is providing," she says.

Life outside practising law

Outside of a busy professional work life, Kathryn Beck is married and has two young daughters.

They enjoy many traditional Kiwi pastimes such as time by the beach and sport.

And despite being a high profile lawyer, it is not uncommon to see Ms Beck and her husband Wayne regularly near the front row of rock concerts.

"We were in the third row at the Rolling Stones in Auckland and Wayne managed to get a Keith Richards guitar pick and one from Ronnie Woods. The scuffle in the mud wasn't too unseemly, "she says.

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